Food and exercise are not matter and anti-matter.

by Michelle

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.

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How often do you hear someone say they need to “work off breakfast,” or that they spoiled their workout by eating some calorific food afterward?

I hear it quite a bit, and it always bothers me. Let me count the ways.

First of all, reducing food to “calorie intake” and movement to “calorie expenditure” – setting them up as opposites, one cancelling the other out – disregards the real, complex, essentially human experiences of eating and moving.

It sets food and movement up to be rivals, competing for control over your weight. In doing so, it centers weight as The Priority.

It assumes one should always be in a state of calorie deficit, pursuing weight loss to the exclusion of enjoying your food, or moving for the fun of it.

It also implies that the only reason a person would exercise is for the purpose of off-setting what they eat – that food is matter, and exercise anti-matter.

Black or white. Zero or one. Positive or negative. All or nothing.

Even if you have given up the intentional pursuit of weight loss, it can be hard to escape this kind of thinking. It is imbedded, in many ways, into our culture and our language about eating and exercise. If you find yourself thinking this way, that’s okay – we all internalize messages from our surroundings. The question is whether you examine those messages, and how you act on them.

The best reminder you can give yourself in these instances, where either you have thought of food and exercise as negating each other, or someone else has sent this message in your general direction, is this:

Food and exercise are not enemies. They are friends. They work together to create and sustain life.

If you were to only eat without moving, you might remain nourished, but gradually become weakened in your bones and muscles, your cardiovascular fitness would wane, and you would become very ill. If your internal organs also stopped moving, you would die.

On the flip side, if you were to only move without eating, you would also become weakened (but probably not gradually), and then you would die.

Important note here: “moving” means literally that – any movement that you do in a day. We’ve come to prioritize and privilege rarefied forms of movement in our culture, usually involving gym memberships and special clothes and/or equipment, but your body does not care – your body cares about whether you can do your activities of daily living with adequate energy and strength, and how well your heart and lungs function. You don’t need a gym membership to do any of that (though if you just like going to the gym, then bully for you.)

Simply moving through your day – hell, simply existing without voluntary movement at all – uses up energy. But how many people reduce their activities of daily living to just “calories burned?”

“Oh, I need to burn some calories, so I guess I’ll clean up the kitchen and then concentrate on this book for a while!”

It would be absurd – because even simple activities like kitchen-cleaning and book-reading are about so much more than just calories burned. They are experiences that involve emotion, problem-solving, engaging your senses. They are the stuff human lives are made of.

You cannot reduce human life to a thermodynamic transaction.

There is more to it than that.

There is more to eating than calories, even biochemically – there are vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, essential amino acids, antioxidants, electrolytes, fluids, dietary fibre, all the raw materials for repairing and remodeling every single cell in your body. More than that, there is culture, family history, occasion, artistry, skill, growth, feelings of joy or resentment, pleasure or distaste. There are emotional associations and memories, and there is the basic affirmation of life – “I need to eat to survive, and I am worth the effort to survive.” Every act of eating reaffirms your right to exist.

There is more to movement than calories, even biochemically – there is bone strengthening, muscle building, aerobic fitness, neural growth, balancing of hormones and lipid transporters, and every single involuntary movement and chemical reaction carried on below your conscious awareness, working around the clock to stave off entropy. More than that, there is fun, adventure, challenge, mastery, strength, place associations, social bonding, the experience of being an alive thing on a round, blue speck in the galaxy. There is a basic affirmation that you exist in a world you were designed to navigate.

Even if you are disabled, even if you have some impairment, your body is still exploring – from the bat of an eyelash to a trip to the bathroom. You are negotiating, discovering, navigating a physical existence.

You were made for this world. You belong in it, and it belongs to you.

Eating and moving: your right to exist, and a world in which to exist. They are not rivals. They do not annihilate each other. They collaborate to make a whole person, body and soul.

Stories of dangerously reductionist thinking in comments.